Now Hear This: an Interview with Colin Davin, guitar

Guitarist Colin Davin, on faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music, enjoys a robust performance career which brings him to Dallas on November 11 to perform alongside Emily Levin, principal harp for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The program features new and known works: music they have arranged for their instruments, and a contemporary piece the duo premiered at the 2017 Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival. A performance clip of Mr. Davin and Ms. Levin can be seen here.


What piece on the program are you most excited about? What should audience members listen for? The whole program has been a true delight to rehearse and perform, but I’m particularly excited for the finale, Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo. It’s our own transcription of this magnificent Spanish ballet score, and it’s full of incredibly beautiful lyricism, flamenco-inspired harmonies and rhythms, mystical storylines–what more could we ask for? Given the richness of the original orchestral score, it’s also a wonderful opportunity and challenge for us to present the vast range of instrumental colors and effects on our two instruments.

Is chamber music for guitar a big part of the repertoire? What is a typical performance for you: solo, chamber ensemble, orchestra, etc.? Chamber music is a huge part of what we do as classical guitarists. Personally, I’ve always thrived on collaboration, and relish working with great musicians who bring out new elements in my own playing, the vibrant discussions about how to realize a phrase, match dynamics or rubato in a certain way, and so on. As for a typical performance, there’s no such thing! This fall alone I’ve been a concerto soloist, given a solo recital, performed duos with Sharon Isbin (who was my teacher at The Juilliard School) and with Emily Levin (prior to this concert, that is), and performed with the new music ensembles Present Music (Milwaukee) and Talea Ensemble (New York City). My parts for the last of those called for three different guitars, mandolin, Appalachian dulcimer, autoharp, and a curious Turkish instrument resembling a banjo called the cümbüş.

You are based in Cleveland and Emily Levin, your duo partner, is here in Dallas. How did you two connect and start working together? How do you work on music together? Is there a lot of traveling, or do you Skype? After first meeting at the Aspen Music Festival through our mutual friend Grace Browning, another wonderful Dallas-based harpist [editor’s note: Ms. Browning performed with Ms. Levin as part of the Dallas Harp Quartet for FACP’s Bancroft Family Concert in October 2016], Emily and I began working together while both living in New York City. Lucky for me, I saw a solo recital she was giving, so I pretty quickly had the thought that this was someone I’d love to work with. Shortly after we had decided to make our collaboration a serious duo, we were each offered wonderful opportunities outside of New York–Emily with the DSO, and me teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory, both in Northeast Ohio, where I grew up. Rather than let the duo fade out as might be expected, we doubled our efforts and put in some serious work to solidify our full-length program.

I’m allergic to Skype rehearsals–potential issues of delay, sound quality, etc. drive me crazy–so I’d rather take a few days off and come to Dallas, or find time in New York together, where we are both still active.

How old were you when you started playing the guitar? Why did you choose the guitar? I started playing guitar at the age of 7, and unusually, I started on classical. Most kids, of course, want to play electric rock/pop guitar, but at that early age I hardly knew any better! My father had long played the guitar as a hobby, and is an enthusiast of many styles of guitar playing. One of his favorite players, the brilliant folk-rock guitarist and singer-songwriter Richard Thompson, had suggested in an interview that beginners should start with classical, and could then easily adapt that technique and musical understanding to other styles. In my case, classical stuck early on, and has been my passion in life since the early days!

Do you plug in and play electric? I do play some other styles, and occasionally, quite a few other instruments in the plucked family. Over the years I’ve played electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, oud, rubab, dulcimer, and a good handful more. Often, these are in contemporary-classical contexts, but I’ve certainly had opportunities to play rock, jazz, and some other “popular” genres. In fact, I’m a member of a semi-active folk/Americana band called Cathedral Parkway.

What type of music did you listen to as a kid? As a kid, I was raised on the great folk and rock bands of the ’60s and ’70s: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Joan Baez, etc. As I got into middle school and high school, I was a big fan of REM, The Beatles, YES, King Crimson, and a whole swath of jazz musicians. That said, I was absolutely listening to a lot of classical music as well, with a particularly affinity for the Beethoven Symphonies, Rachmaninov Piano Concertos, and anything in the hands of the English guitarist Julian Bream.

Who’s your favorite composer to listen to? To play? This is a tough one–there’s so much brilliant music that’s all so different, beautiful, and exciting! So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll go with one “old” and one “new” for each question. Favorite composer of the past to listen to: still Beethoven, though the experience of hearing his music has come to mean so much more to me as I’ve matured. Close second, or maybe even tied: Benjamin Britten. To play: J.S. Bach, whose music continues to reveal its depth and complexity every time I come back to an old piece or start to work on a new one.

Favorite modern composer to listen to: my friend Caroline Shaw, who somehow manages to weave intricate processes into expressions of absolutely sublime sound and emotion. Her music is nothing short of a revelation. Favorite composer of today to play: Joan Tower, whose solo guitar piece “Clocks” and flute and guitar duet “Snow Dreams” are both evocative, exciting, and a real journey in sound. It’s terribly difficult music to play, but deeply rewarding and worth the energy.

What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? Least favorite? I’ll offer a musical favorite and a non-musical one. Musical: the sound of the last note of a large orchestral work (let’s say Mahler’s 9th Symphony) ringing in the concert hall, the audience’s collective breath held as the final hint of that resonance and the silence that follows are savored. Non-musical: the sound of a busy city waking up in the morning, before the sounds of people and traffic are yet boisterous enough to drown out the birds. And for reasons mostly of professional anxiety, the sound of speakers feeding back or loudly popping is truly awful.

Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? This is another tough one! I would love to see Mozart lead a performance of Don Giovanni, or the peak of Beatlemania.